Bali Bloodsport

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Frangipani flowers. Cool soft breezes. Turquoise rolling water. Two guys scratching each other’s backs with the equivalent of cactus fronds until they’re both bleeding.

Aaah, soothing Bali.

We’re in Tenganan village in North East Bali where, once a year, all of the village men, including children, face off in a  tradition called Mekare Kare – in which two opponents hold up bunched together Pandan fronds (whose edges are sharp and jagged) woven shields, and try to hit, and scratch each other’s back or another body part that arrives first.

Based on their grimaces and grunts, which we heard from the audience around their battle floor, they clearly mean it. A Shakespearean play this is nay.

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Amazingly, as heated as each fighter gets, it’s all over within 15 seconds. Sworn enemies are now best friends, sharing a laugh with each other, patting each other on the shoulder, both with warm smiles. Somehow the part where each guy was desperate to stick a thorny twig on the other’s neck and back, then rub it up and down until it broke the skin is like sooo 5 seconds ago.

The question then: why not avoid the bloodshed and skip to the happy go lucky part?

For that answer, however, you have to ask Indra, the God that oversees this village. Commonly known as the “God of Gods”, and the “God of War”, the Tenganese aren’t really interested in opening up a philosophical debate with ‘ol Indra.

Rather than question His/Her methods, and risk a really bad rice crop that year, and maybe the next year and next (who knows how long the wrath could last?), instead they carry on the tradition to show respect to Indra with this once a year battle in which they’re essentially saying: Scratch our back, and we’ll scratch each other’s to shed blood.

Of course, being a God of War, this explains why the village men demonstrate their respect by going into battle rather than climbing up palm trees to see who can juggle three coconuts at the top. Still, it’s odd to see two guys fight, who then laugh heartily with each other afterwards. Translating their kind gestures with each other into conversation in my mind, would sound like: “Sorry about those scratches. You ok? I know. It’s so silly we do this. Aah, well. Rules are rules. Hope I didn’t scratch you too badly.”

We walked into the village throw-down completely by accident. Rose and I were with a guide whom we used last time when we here a year ago, and he was driving us up the coast to Amed. Along the way he picked out some things to see, thinking this village would be a nice sidetrip, as a showcase of what a traditional Bali village was like.

And, it was interesting. From an ancient swing set that worked more like a Ferris wheel:

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to buildings layered with rows and rows of rocks:

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to the young village girls, dressed up in traditional clothing to commemorate the day:

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But all of this was eclipsed by the main event, at center stage, the Pandan fights – pandan being those sharp catcus-like fronds I mentioned earlier.

We quickly realized we weren’t going to enjoy a private event:

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It became clear this was on a lot of people’s schedules as media passes had been handed out, and a stage had been built for photographers to snap their best battle shots, front and center.

In this crowd looked to be a National Geographic photographer or at least a good actor who was bluffing their credentials, other local media, a couple of other Western media outlets (judging from the looks of the guys), and…Rose.

We’d arrived well in advance of the fighting, and had each taken a position for a better view. Rose got on the platform, and as the minutes passed, more and more photographers saddled up next to her with their telescopic bazookas, while she smiled at them with an iPhone camera. Incredibly, no one asked for her press pass, and she had the best position for photographs.

Including, a ton of battle poses with gritting teeth, and flying pandan swords:

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I was positioned on the right side and didn’t get quite the same vantage, except of showcasing the amount of cameras snapping away in front of me.

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After an hour of watching the blood offering, I think we were well satiated, including our guide who’d filled up his phone camera with shots, admitting he’d always wanted to see the fight.

However, part of Balinese Hinduism we learned was the importance of maintaining balance. Not too much one way, not too much the other.

With that in mind, it was time to get back to frangipanis and turquoise rolling waves. Next stop, farther up the coast to Amed to practice our snorkelling and daydream skills.

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